Ode to the Car Keys

In the late sixties we were so fed up we wanted to destroy it all. That's when we changed the name of America and stuck in the "k". The mood today is different, and the language that will respond to today's mood will be different. Things are so deteriorated in this society, that it's not up to you to destroy America, it's up to you to go out and save America.

           —Abbie Hoffman, National Student Convention '88, Rutgers University

In a burst of Dionysian FRIGHT
           you're snagged
                      keys locked inside
                                 first week first car in 16 years
forced to ring a stranger's steel curtain door
            for a healing coat hanger never used before
                      dipped in 19 consecutive generations
                                 of herbal locksmith experimental libations
but the magic potion hanger won't fit
           in the window
                      till you rip rubber insulation padding
                                 and then doorknob comes only halfway up
then back all the way down
           50 times
                      halfway up and all the way down
                                 till finally you realize this ain't gonna work
So you call local police for help
           but begin screaming "
                      “You broke Martin's new plastic jaw
                                 with a Jim Crow hangman's billy club law!”
then casually describe your local campaign plans
           to institute civilian review board rock & roll bands
                      that would include 6-year olds
                                 with no corporate two-party political bias
so by the time you ask
           about getting car door opened
                       all officers are busy
                                 and locksmith equipment all locked up
Just in time you remember a spare key
            in your bedroom dresser
                      hid in pages of an old spiral notebook
                                 you haven't looked at since heavy drinking days
but you realize apartment's an hour away
           and front door keys
                      on your car key ring
                                 with six others
now easily countably floppy in the ignition
           O keys, how brilliant your bright sunned reflection
                      through the passengerside window!
                                 O shit

No wonder 16 years without a car
           and today at work I'm driving
                      an 8-months pregnant homeless Latina woman
                                 to look at apartments
She hasn't had house keys for awhile
           and O My Keys she's getting nervous
                      having contractions while I'm only
                                 learning to deliver messages
but she knows he's coming early
           “it's a boy” her last boy early
                      one before that too
                                 she might have liked a girl
they'll be no more apartments to see today
           that she can't have
                      despite shiny new
                                 Section 8 rent subsidy certificate
and only 5 more student loan repayments before
           eligible for new loans to paralegal school
                      where she'll study to lawyer
                                 once she finds a legal home
and you my car keys are in their proper place
           the ignition
                      but the path is blocked
                                 & I can't reach you
no matter how I open
           cleansed perception
                      to Blakean infinity
                                 of blue skies above

Yvette feels guilty
           doesn't want any Amandla Crossing
                      Transitional Housing residents
                                 to hear of my screw up
cause they'll think her bad luck
           so I yell second time today:
                      “Don't internalize everything! It's all me!
                                 I'm Fucking Idiot for the Day
this's absolutely no reflection on you!”
           to no avail
                      she still doesn't want me telling
                                 and I feel guilty for losing my cool
till she says at least I'm acting
           human now
                      not like some ice cube social worker—
                                 role reversal—here—mid street
wherever we're stuck
           with keys where they're supposed to be
                      but not now please O keys not now
                                 please not now not now not now not now
not not not not not not now now now now now now
           hypnotized into iron trance
                      depressed about red tears
                                 dropping my palm's longest line
who would believe our story
            when no more than two senators
                      expressed belief
                                 in Anita Hill?
Magically suspending disbelief
           doesn't cut
                      the mustard tree
                                 of earthly political justice
and now a right-wing Supreme Court zealot
           can help illustrate that ideology does not know
                      rigid ethnic or gender boundaries
                                 though sociopolitical power
up to this historic point mostly certainly does
           If Anita Hill wasn't believed
                      what woman will?
                                 Surely not 27 homeless women
in our transitional housing program
           sure not 50 kids
                      with homelessness
                                 carved into cranial histories
Yvette's worried, supposed to be back soon
           to take her two kids out of daycare
                      where we left them with 48 others
                                 about to throw 250 million p-i-e-c-e-s
of a giant jigsaw puzzle
           of the world or country or state
                      can't remember which
                                 onto the floor
Now that I think of it
            it looked
                      a lot like
                                 the American left
or maybe Picasso's Guernica
           as seen by Gert Stein
                      after reading Ulysses
                                 and deconstructing the Cyclops chapter
Yvette's supposed to be back by 5:00
           my watch stopped at 4:30
                      does that mean I can't be late?
                                 O my bright shining keys! o my!

Things could be worse!
            I could be writing an ode to my clothes
                      standing naked here in Woodbridge
                                 groping for an anti-Enlightenment
edenic fig leaf technology
           while Neruda gets angry with me
                      for ripping off his ideas while failing
                                 to move the planet noticeably forward
I could be waving pro-choice coat hangers
           as lone protection from extremist explosions
                      of toxic-dump land
                                 to radioactive air missiles.
I could be Father Aristede
           given unceremonious boot
                      by U.S.-trained guntoting cahoots
                                 while unknown mystery beings
who look just like Tonton Macouts
           in nonhuman-dimensional suits
                      disappear organizers against coups
                                 before teary-eyed silent infant cries
Before Yeltsinian greed took over
           Gorbachev thank Compassion's Window
                      returned for a moment
                                 from his long coupy trip
I condemned that one
           right away
                      no more anti-democratic acts
                                 in socialism's name!
The dream of the utopian left was
           to lead Democracy's child
                      into new & underground parts
                                 of the city
not to try saving the city
           by offering the child up
                      as sacrifice
                                 to the latest books
turned into the latest
           manufactured biblicistic fractured
                       tylenol tablets
                                 Tip those KGBCIA statues over!
America I've given you all
           and now what & where am I?
                      With the key thru the window?
                                 And no one to drive the car?
Over half our Canadian neighbors
           live in provinces driven
                      by democratic left NDP
                                 while here ozone layer disintegrates
& any tourist can smell
           rotting perfume riding NJ's Turnpike
                      with car windows open
                                 Where's our New Democratic Party, my keys?

I measure every grief I meet
           with probing eyes that are wider
                      than that slot
                                 between window and locked doorknob
here with me is a woman talking to death
           saying no, I survived your phantoms
                      saying my kids and I
                                 will beat you to the wheel this time
and looked at this way
           car keys don't matter
                      what kind of metaphor
                                  is this?
what the ability to drive a machine
           compared to this?
                      how the literary canon
                                 stand up to this?
what kind
           of home
                       is getting into a car
           “What, you suddenly have goddamned
                                 to daydream NOW?”
And I laugh
                      in the lack
                                 of act
thinking how beautiful it would feel
           jingling keys
                      in my palm's
                                 eye again
After the modernists deconstructed
           what that exists
                      and postmodernists added questions
                                 of identity construction & appropriation
to the equation that could never be
           an equation to them
                      O reasonable unreasonableness
                                 who am I
at this moment to them
           this only jewish child
                      of a concentration camp survivor mom
                                 depression-pinched chemistry dad
now helpless outside a locked car?
           Who is this pregnant homeless woman beside me
                      whose name I have changed
                                 to write this poem
now trying her luck with the door?
           Who is that kicking her belly
                      to enter this polluted world
                                 before it's ready?
Who are these survivors
of domestic violence, of injuries
that suck up the
rent, teenaged mothers kicked
out the house, drugged out escape
routes, AIDS ripping
apart growing bones, father-in-law
rapes, local police
badges branded on their bodies, 27 different
reasons for homelessness, ten thousand reasons for the kids, without
playgrounds, tumbling on used heroin
needles, bunkbed torched by racism's adult
white gasolined robes, dinner sacrificed
for parental addictions to
theft of convictions, congress-dictated plutonium
profitable neglect, 3 a.m. drunken bangings
on cardboard welfare motel doors, rusty handgun barrels
armed & aimed into
the cradle's third eye, thunder lightning
of 100 million multinational sexual
abuse nightmares, it's over it's over it's over it's over
there just ain't no reason for hope it's got
to be over;
           no I refuse
                      to give up
got to get those keys
           without breaking
                      the window
                                 one can't buy a new window
50 kids back home working on a jigsaw puzzle
           half african-american,
                      one-third latino one-third white, one-quarter indian
                                 one-tenth amerasian
and one more tenth
           born into pneumonia's
                      infant mortality
                                 death grip
O endless ironizing detachment into an ineluctable void!
O keys! Got to get you soon
without breaking the window O world!

Eliot Katz 1991-92